How To Give Successful Design Feedback

Brandon Houlihan
May 15, 2017 · 4 min read

Giving design feedback is a tricky thing. When done properly it can serve as a valuable tool that fosters positive relationships and improves the design. When done poorly it can feel like a personal attack and make designers hesitant to share their work. I’ll share the guidelines and structure I’ve been using to help me give more successful design feedback.

Guidelines

There are a few guidelines to follow when giving feedback that will ensure your opinions are not only heard but also trusted while helping the person receiving the feedback feel respected.

It can be really hard to avoid generalized statements about design, especially when you have experience in the subject matter and feel strongly about it. I have received and given many statements like this:

“No one will understand how to use this.”

When we speak like this we are implying that other people share our thoughts and experience. Before you start giving feedback make a conscious effort to recognize you are speaking for yourself and no one else. If other people involved have similar thoughts give them the opportunity to express those thoughts.

The feedback you are giving is on the work, not the person or group of people doing the work. The difference between these two things is subtle but makes all the difference in how well your feedback is received. Avoid using words like you and your. Here is an example of personalized feedback with a generalized statement:

“Your check out page is really complicated, no one will understand how to use this.”

Statements like this can come across like a personal attack and make it hard for others trust you and your feedback. When giving feedback try and remember you are evaluating the work, not the person.


Structuring Feedback

Now that we have a few guidelines to follow let’s talk about how to structure the feedback. When I’m giving a presentation I don’t go into it blindly. I want a game plan so I can deliver a clear point of view and won’t stumble over my words. Giving feedback is no different than giving a presentation. You can and should intentionally structure it. Here’s how.

Providing context gives the person receiving feedback insight into your goals and motivations, which will help them understand where your feedback is coming from. Describe what you were trying to accomplish.

“I was trying to purchase a bag of coffee.”

2. Describe What You Expected

We all have expectations of how things should look and work based on our own experiences. Describing what you expected to happen or see is a good way to frame your feedback — by clarifying your expected output or outcome, you’re also empowering the listener to more effectively empathize with your point of view. Speak about your experience and describe what you expected to see or happen.

“I expected to see the buy button at the top of the page, because that’s where it is on a lot of the sites I use.”

3. Describe What Actually Happened

What you expect to happen and what actually happens don’t always align. After describing what you expected to happen, describe what actually happened.

“I was never able to find the button to buy the coffee.”

Now the person receiving your feedback should have a clear understanding what you were trying to accomplish, what you expected to happen, and what actually happened.

If you want to productively give suggestions on how to improve the design, focus on the goal, not the solution to the goal. Leave the implementation of the goal up to the person receiving your feedback. This will show others you have confidence in their ability to address your problems and improve your experience.

“My experience would be better if I was able to complete my purchase.”

Putting It All Together

If you follow these guidelines and this structure your thoughts you will end up with an objective and precise statement that empowers the person receiving the feedback to address your concerns.

“I was trying to purchase a bag of coffee and I expected to see the buy button at the top of the page, because that’s where it is on a lot of the sites I use. I was never able to find the button to buy the coffee. I would have had a better experience if I were able to complete my purchase.”

Let me know how it goes and if you have any tips of your own for providing design feedback.

Brandon Houlihan

Written by

Designer helping teams crest cross-platform digital products.